The Way to Rainy Mountain

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Origins, Linearity, and Circularity Theme Analysis

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Memory and History Theme Icon
Origins, Linearity, and Circularity Theme Icon
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Origins, Linearity, and Circularity Theme Icon

The way that Momaday tells the story of Kiowa migration is nonlinear: he tells the same story two ways, moves forward and backward in time, and allows endings and origins to bleed into one another. In this way, Rainy Mountain is a challenge to the traditional linear narratives that structure most Western histories—narratives defined by having a clear beginning, middle, and end that are connected by cause and effect and anchored by a single perspective. Rainy Mountain’s structure implicitly argues that history and reality are too complex, fragmentary, and contradictory to be represented by a traditional linear narrative, and that Kiowa history in particular—as an oral rather than written tradition—requires a more experimental form of historical writing.

Momaday is consistently mysterious when writing about origins. He is preoccupied with the abstract idea that language is at the root of all origin (“In the beginning was the word, and it was spoken,” he writes), but he has less to say about the specific historical origin of his tribe. The origin of the Kiowas is explained through the tribal story that the Kiowas came into the world through a hollow log, but Momaday’s attempts at a more traditional historical explanation lead only to mystery; there’s a tribe in the northern plains that speaks a language related to Kiowa, which suggests a geographic origin, but Momaday never goes much further. This certainly points to a gap in knowledge—there is simply not sufficient historical evidence to draw concrete conclusions about the origin of the tribe. Momaday addresses this when he writes, “The verbal tradition by which [Kiowa history] has been preserved has suffered a deterioration in time. What remains is fragmentary: mythology, legend, lore, and hearsay.” However, Momaday’s preservation of mystery in his discussion of origins is telling; these gaps in Kiowa history, which reflect the conditions of Kiowa culture and the nature of oral tradition, say as much about the Kiowa understanding of history as they obscure.

Similarly, the fragmentary nature of oral tradition means that linear history is not possible for the Kiowas to the extent that it would be for a culture with a written tradition, and this is reflected in the basic narrative structure of the interwoven voices. The often-indirect relationship between the voices undercuts the traditional narrative convention that events in a story should be connected by cause and effect. Sometimes the voices connect thematically, as in the section in which each voice reflects on the hardships of Kiowa women, and other times the voices are connected through imagistic association, as when a story of a fire is juxtaposed with a memory of the red glow of the sun on the horizon. Moreover, time does not move chronologically in the book; an example is Momaday’s moving back and forth between stories of his grandmother’s youth and old age. So the nonlinear and fragmentary structure of the memoir reflects the Kiowa understanding of their own past. Instead of a chronological progression of events that lead to the present, Kiowa history is better understood as fragments of stories and ideas that resonate with other memories and stories from across all periods of history.

Momaday’s storytelling also emphasizes circularity, particularly in descriptions of older people. On numerous occasions the similarities between infants and the very old are described; Momaday even compares his grandmother’s face as she was dying to the face of an infant. This suggests a cyclical worldview rather than a linear one—a notion of time in which endings loop back into beginnings. The sense of circularity in The Way to Rainy Mountain is also echoed by repetition of stories throughout the book. Sometimes this is the same story told in several different ways (the creation myth, for example, and the parallel narrative of the Kiowas migrating south), and sometimes it is a variation on the same story recurring over and over, as when the horse Little Red was stolen, just as his bones were stolen after he died.

The prevalence in the book of nontraditional narrative elements and structures reveals the differences between the Eurocentric worldview that underlies traditional historical writing and the Kiowa worldview—the Kiowas understand the past as a collection of story fragments that add up more to an understanding of a culture than a linear account of the passage of time. As the Kiowa cultural and historical tradition is predominantly oral (rather than written), it makes sense that Kiowas would understand history differently from the way the West, with its written culture, does.

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Origins, Linearity, and Circularity Quotes in The Way to Rainy Mountain

Below you will find the important quotes in The Way to Rainy Mountain related to the theme of Origins, Linearity, and Circularity.
Prologue Quotes

In one sense, then, the way to Rainy Mountain is preeminently the history of an idea, man’s idea of himself, and it has old and essential being in language. The verbal tradition by which it has been preserved has suffered a deterioration in time. What remains is fragmentary: mythology, legend, lore, and hearsay—and of course the idea itself, as crucial and complete as it ever was. That is the miracle.

Related Characters: N. Scott Momaday (speaker), The Kiowas
Related Symbols: Rainy Mountain
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage explains N. Scott Momaday’s intention for his book. He is writing a history of the Kiowa migration, but the deeper history he wishes to tell is the history of how the Kiowas understand themselves as people (in other words, “man’s idea of himself”). When he writes that this idea has its being in language, he is implying that people are able to have ideas about themselves only to the extent that they can state those ideas in language. It’s a debatable premise, but it is the premise on which Momaday bases his book. He continues on to state that if people only know themselves through language, and if it’s through the verbal tradition (rather than the written tradition) that this language is preserved, then time will necessarily fray the ideas as they are passed down—hence being left only with the fragments of myth and memory that Momaday will assemble throughout the book. So Momaday is explaining here that the non-linear, fragmentary, myth-heavy version of Kiowa history that he is about to tell is a form dictated by Kiowa culture itself, as well as the historical evidence (or lack thereof) that is available to him. He argues, in other words, that this way of telling history is Kiowa history, and to tell Kiowa history in a way more recognizable to Euro-American audiences would be to obscure something fundamental about the Kiowa people.


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The buffalo was the animal representation of the sun, the essential and sacrificial victim of the Sun Dance. When the wild herds were destroyed, so too was the will of the Kiowa people; there was nothing to sustain them in spirit. But these are idle recollections, the mean and ordinary agonies of human history. The interim was a time of great adventure and nobility and fulfillment.

Related Characters: N. Scott Momaday (speaker), The Kiowas
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage ties together the hardships of the beginning of the Kiowa migration—the time before the Kiowas had Tai-me or horses—and the hardships that the Kiowas faced after disastrous treaties with the U.S. government and the disappearance of the buffalo. This implies a circularity in Momaday’s (and the Kiowas’) understanding of history: the conditions of the past returned hundreds of years later, though in a form and context slightly different from before. It’s notable that Momaday seems to dismiss these periods of hardship (despite their recurrence) as unimportant (or, at least, unremarkable). Momaday suggests that the more important subject to focus on is the Kiowa golden age, when the Kiowas were at the peak of their power and fulfillment. This passage also emphasizes the importance of the buffalo. The buffalo are seen, even, as a proxy for Kiowa culture; once they disappeared, the Kiowas lost their will and spirit. This shows the deep interrelation between Kiowas and the natural world. Though the Kiowas are, throughout the book, notably adaptable to changing circumstances, the disappearance of the buffalo is an exception. Without this element of the natural world, the Kiowas are unable to be their true selves.

The imaginative experience and the historical express equally the traditions of man’s reality.

Related Characters: N. Scott Momaday (speaker)
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote is fundamental to understanding Momaday’s reasoning behind telling Kiowa history the way he does. In traditional Euro-American history, scholars must have material evidence in order to claim that something happened in the past. This kind of evidence could be artifacts, diaries, historical newspapers, etc., but scholars are required to provide physical proof of an event in order to be believed. Many of the stories that Momaday tells lack evidence and even defy common sense: people turn into animals, unexplained intuition saves people from beasts, magic words affect the landscape, or objects give spiritual power to people. In traditional Euro-American history, there would be no way to assert these events as ones that literally happened, but for Kiowas those events have been understood as factual. This leaves Momaday in a dilemma; to explicitly label these stories as myth undercuts their power as historical explanation, but to assert that they happened might undermine his credibility as a historian. Momaday thus splits the difference by making the important observation that it doesn’t matter whether an event literally occurred or was imaginary, because both the literal and the imaginary express reality as the Kiowas understand it. In other words, in our understanding of lived reality we do not apply the standards of Western historical writing, so in order to understand lived reality, we must not ignore the power of the imaginary. This is the justification for the fragmented and hybrid structure of storytelling that Momaday uses to convey Kiowa history.

To look upon that landscape in the early morning, with the sun at your back, is to lose the sense of proportion. Your imagination comes to life, and this, you think, is where Creation was begun.

Related Characters: N. Scott Momaday (speaker)
Related Symbols: Rainy Mountain
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Momaday is referring to the landscape of Rainy Mountain, or, in other words, the landscape of the Kiowa homeland. Crucially, this passage comes just before Momaday discusses his own return to Rainy Mountain and his decision to retrace the Kiowa migration. This quote is a way to explain the reasoning behind Momaday’s choice. To Momaday (and, presumably, to the other Kiowas) landscape is not a backdrop to culture and history, but an integral part of Kiowa history and identity. Therefore, to seriously engage with the landscape is an essential part of understanding who the Kiowas are and how they have become what they are. In fact, here Momaday is even implying a spiritual dimension to the landscape (that “Creation was begun” at Rainy Mountain), which extends into a temporal justification for beginning Kiowa history with landscape—for if the landscape evokes the moment of creation, then landscape is a kind of origin point, and a logical place to start. It’s notable, too, that the sense of the quote is that the landscape subsumes the human (“to look upon that landscape…is to lose the sense of proportion”). Momaday is not choosing to begin his history of the Kiowas with a moment that aggrandizes humans, but rather one that suggests a human unity within the natural world.

The Setting Out Quotes

A hundred years ago the Comanche Ten Bears remarked upon the great number of horses which the Kiowas owned. “When we first knew you,” he said, “you had nothing but dogs and sleds.” It was so; the dog is primordial. Perhaps it was dreamed into being.

Related Characters: The Kiowas , Comanches
Related Symbols: Horses
Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote gets at several important themes of the book. First, it underscores the idea of the horse as being an essential component of Kiowa identity—before the introduction of the horse, the Kiowas lived a demeaning and hard life, but the horse allowed them to become who they were meant to be. Since horses signify the golden age of Kiowa history and dogs are symbolic of the hard life the Kiowas lived beforehand, this again emphasizes that Kiowas understood themselves in relation to the natural world. The Kiowas suggest that horses and dogs changed them, rather than implying that they controlled the horses and dogs. This quote is also interesting because the passage about dogs being “dreamed into being” resonates with many of the ideas of origins in the book (the landscape as the catalyst for creation, and language as having the literal power to bring something into being). This is another example of traditional notions of cause and effect not being broadly applicable in the book. A last observation is that throughout the book Momaday is comfortable using observations from people of other cultures as evidence of certain aspects of Kiowa history or identity. Here, he quotes a Comanche, and in other sections he quotes James Mooney, a white anthropologist. This shows, again, that the mixing of cultures was a central part of Kiowa history, and because of that, Momaday believes that other cultures have some meaningful and true knowledge of Kiowas.

There was a great holiness all about in the room, as if an old person had died there or a child had been born.

Related Characters: N. Scott Momaday , Tai-me
Page Number: 37
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote is Momaday’s personal memory of visiting the Tai-me bundle as a child. Tai-me is the foundational religious object of the Kiowas, and, as such, its presence is sacred. Momaday describes the whole room as having been suffused with Tai-me’s holiness, and it is significant that this sacredness is described in human terms rather than divine ones—a religious object reminds Momaday of being in the presence of birth or death, two of the most definitive human experiences. This emphasizes the interconnectedness, rather than the separateness, of the human and the divine, which echoes the interconnectedness that the Kiowas saw between humans and the natural world. The divine was found within and outside of humans, just as nature shaped and was shaped by humans. This quote also emphasizes the notion of circular time in which birth and death loop back into one another. This has been brought up before in several contexts: for example, when Momaday suggests that Kiowa history cycles repeatedly through similar periods of hardship, or when Momaday describes his great-grandmother’s skin as becoming infant-like in her old age.

The Closing In Quotes

Once in his life a man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth, I believe. He ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience, to look at it from as many angles as he can, to wonder about it, to dwell upon it. He ought to imagine that he touches it with his hands at every season and listens to the sounds that are made upon it. He ought to imagine the creatures there and all the faintest motions of the wind. He ought to recollect the glare of noon and all the colors of the dawn and dusk.

Related Characters: N. Scott Momaday
Page Number: 83
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage closes the body of the book—only the epilogue is left after this, and so this marks the end of the three-section structure that maps onto the three major periods of Kiowa history. As such, this passage can be read as a way to make a conclusion from the arc of Kiowa history, and as a conclusion, it conspicuously refuses to make any sweeping statement of meaning or destiny. Instead, Momaday brings Kiowa history back to the personal, the landscape, and, significantly, the imagination. Momaday had previously referred to the landscape of Rainy Mountain as evoking a sense of spirituality and of origin, and this description echoes that sentiment. However, the difference is that the first description of the landscape of Rainy Mountain was a literal one—Momaday was attempting to describe a landscape that was in front of him. Here, however, Momaday encourages readers to recall a landscape from memory in fine detail, to pull it from the imagination without being in the presence of it. This is an act of creation and imagination, then, rather than one of strict observation and representation. In a sense, this could be seen as a metaphor for the work of historical writing and memory. Kiowa history is not a landscape that can be observed and described, but one whose details must be gleaned from memory and imagination alone, as its referent (the past) no longer exists. So this return to a description of landscape is another instance of circular storytelling—of returning to a theme or event in a way that echoes, rather than repeats, the previous instance.

Epilogue Quotes

The culture would persist for a while in decline, until about 1875, but then it would be gone, and there would be very little material evidence that it had ever been. Yet it is within the reach of memory still, though tenuously now, and moreover it is even defined in a remarkably rich and living verbal tradition which demands to be preserved for its own sake. The living memory and the verbal tradition which transcends it were brought together once and for all in the person of Ko-sahn.

Related Characters: N. Scott Momaday (speaker)
Page Number: 85-86
Explanation and Analysis:

At the close of the book, Momaday emphasizes, once again, that Kiowa history and culture are inextricable from their mode of transmission: the oral tradition. Without language and storytelling, in other words, Kiowa history could not live on. Momaday does not sugarcoat the damage that has been done to the oral tradition—as old people with firsthand memories of the golden age die off and as (forced and unforced) assimilation by Kiowas to Euro-American culture weakens the continuity and relevance of Kiowa stories, the oral tradition becomes weaker. For this reason, and because of the richness and power of the oral tradition, Momaday explains that the stories must be preserved—a task to which his book has dedicated itself. It’s significant that Momaday closes the book by anchoring abstract ideas of the oral tradition to an actual person, an elderly Kiowa woman who lived during the Sun Dance. While Momaday’s concerns with history, memory, and storytelling might sometimes seem abstract, his turn to a living person shows the personal significance and the stakes of preserving Kiowa culture. History for the Kiowas is not an abstract and impersonal phenomenon, but one that is self-consciously and passionately carried forward through people who understand that it is the only way to make sure Kiowa culture lives on.